A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Before I can tell you how excellent Ida Cook’s memoir Safe Passage is, I have to rage at its publicity. It’s been trumpeted as ‘the incredible true story of two sisters, one belief. And a legacy that spans generations’. Oh please: what does that non-specific gush tell anyone? The email from the publicist spoke of an ‘incredible Holocaust memoir’. (Do these people even know what ‘incredible’ means? ‘Not believable’. Not ‘really, really amazing’.) The blurb on the back cover talks about Cook’s role in rescuing ‘hundreds’ of Jews, which is a misrepresentation, since Ida and Louise Cook ‘only’ rescued 29. (29 Jews rescued from the Nazis is outstanding, but it is wilfully misleading to say they rescued ‘hundreds’.) The blurb fails to mention that the memoir is mainly about opera in the 1930s, and surviving the Blitz, and will disappoint those hoping for a book-length history of the rescue of persecuted Jews. I wonder if the publicists have actually read this book.
Here are two good reasons to enjoy Safe Passage. It’s not a new book, it’s the reprint of the 2008 edition, which was itself a revision of Cook’s original memoir from 1950. Therefore, it’s a classic. Readers like classics: they rely on the taste of earlier generations of readers to trust that they’re not being sold a dud. Why be shy of this? The second: Ida Cook was a prolific and successful novelist from 1936 to 1985, writing under the pseudonym of Mary Burchell. She was one of the founders of the Romantic Novelists’ Association, an important institution for a significant part of the book-buying and borrowing public. There are millions of romance novel fans out there, Harlequin: why are you nervous of selling them a memoir by an author they’ve been buying in vast quantities for decades?
Back to the grumbles: Safe Passage was originally called We Followed Our Stars, which was much better. The original title embraces the whole of the book, which is about the sisters’ enthusiastic pursuit of opera stars; their enjoyment of Covent Garden queue culture; saving for (literally) years to sail to New York, flying to Cologne, and taking the night train to Milan, all to see one particular singer or to hear one particular conductor. Ida Cook was an early paparazza, snapping candid shots of the stars on her Box Brownie as they emerged from the Covent Garden stage door. She and Louise became close friends with the American singer Rosa Ponselle, the Italian coloratura Alita Galli-Curci, the Austrian conductor Clemens Krauss and the Romanian soprano Viorica Ursuleac. There’s quite a bit of name-dropping – ‘Years and years afterwards, Callas said to me …’ – but most will be lost on readers who are not musicologists. It’s the passion for music, and the warm friendships that grew up between these fans and their stars, that give this memoir its emotional depth.
Following their stars gave the Cook sisters the ideal cover story for their increasing trips to Germany and Austria to get Jewish refugees out. They used the guarantee system of visas, invented by the British consul in Frankfurt am Main, Robert Smallbones, by which the Nazi authorities allowed the departure of Jews to Britain if they had a guarantee of financial support in Britain. The Cook sisters found the guarantees and arranged the ‘safe passage’ of 29 German and Austrian Jews, focusing on getting families out as well as children. Ida financed this with her earnings as a fiction editor and as an increasingly successful novelist, and Louise taught herself German to be able to do the interviews with refugees and the authorities. To provide refugees with an income, they smuggled out furs by sewing in British labels, and got fabulously valuable jewellery past suspicious German customs agents by wearing it as if it came from Woolworth’s. Reselling these valuable items in Britain gave the refugees start-up financial security, so that often the guarantees of financial support that the Cooks were offered by friends and strangers were not needed. Since the Cook sisters were well-known at Cologne airport and in Vienna as eccentric English sisters who adored opera, their comings and goings were accepted. This is a tremendous story, and it is the heart of the memoir, but there is so much more.
The Cooks’ refugee work ended when war was declared, and they separated to carry out war work in Britain. Ida was assigned to superintend a night shelter at the Elephant and Castle, in south London. Her descriptions of enduring the Blitz, the physical effects of bomb blasts, what it sounds like when the buildings above are crashing into ruin, and the smell and colour of burning buildings, are extraordinarily powerful, which leads to another important aspect of this memoir (another aspect ignored by the publicity): she’s a terrific writer. Her style is apparently artless chattering, evoking the cheerful secretary that she was in her early twenties, and masking the sisters’ bravery during their humanitarian relief work. There is emotional truth to be found beneath the apparently trivial detail of the daily lives of these young professional women in 1930s London. Ida’s memoir is packed with the detail of ordinary lives from the 1930s that so often get ignored: dress-making from Mab’s Fashions on a tight budget, where shopgirls had their lunches, her work as a catastrophically useless sub-editor on one of the new fiction magazines that proliferated between the wars, and how the opera fans kept in touch, and kept music in their lives, during and after the war. The scene where the Cooks have arranged a party for all their Covent Garden queuing friends immediately after the war, and make a long-distance call to Rosa Ponselle in New York, who sings for them down the phone: well, that brought tears to my eyes. As did the scene during the Blitz when another singer and her accompanist had the 200 inhabitants of the night shelter singing Ben Jonson’s lyric ‘Drink to Me only With Thine Eyes’.
Safe Passage is evocative and a marvellous read, thoroughly recommended. Buy it for the story of Ida’s whole life, not for what the publicists think is so hot right now.
Ida Cook, Safe Passage (2016, Harlequin / Mira [aka HarperCollins]), £8.99, (re)published 10 March 2016
Read more of Kate getting passionate (and occasionally grumpy) about books she really, really likes at katemacdonald.net.